NAROWAL/Lahore - Interior Minister and top PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal was wounded in an apparent assassination attack yesterday, ahead of nationwide elections due in July, bringing more volatility to an already charged atmosphere.

He was preparing to leave a public meeting in his home district Narowal  in the evening when a young man named Abid Hussain fired a bullet which landed in Ahsan’s abdomen, injuring his right arm on the way.

Police arrested the suspect, said to be in his early 20s, who shot the minister at close range with a 30-bore pistol but was overpowered before he could fire more bullets.

After initial medical assistance at Narowal District Headquarters Hospital, the minister was airlifted to Lahore where doctors at Services Hospital removed the bullet and stated his condition to be stable.

“The attacker was about to fire a second shot when police and people in the meeting overpowered him,” said Malik Ahmed Khan, a spokesman for the Punjab government. He confirmed that Ahsan’s life was not in danger.

Video footage of his arrival in Lahore showed him being lifted from a helicopter on a stretcher, his eyes open as he responded to questions.

“He’s stable... he’s ok,” said a hospital official, who asked not to be named.

In initial probe, the arrested suspect claimed to be belonging to a religious organisation Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasul Allah (TLYR) and stated ruling party’s last year bid to change a law about the finality of the prophet-hood as the motive. But TLYR condemned the attack.

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif – who also heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – suspected a greater sinister behind the gory incident that follows a series of blows to the ruling party.

Ahsan Iqbal, who was touted as a potential prime minister when Nawaz Sharif was ousted last July, is a US-educated lawmaker from a political family long associated with the PML-N. Considered the brains behind the party’s development agenda, he previously headed up the planning ministry.

The brazen attack, which came in Kanjrur tehsil, prompted protests in his native city Narowal where supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz burnt tyres and blocked roads in protest.

The shooting also caused widespread shock on social media, prompted a race for breaking news between the national TV channels and drew quick national and international condemnations.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, opposition leaders Imran Khan and Bilawal Bhutto and almost all other political figures condemned the incident and wished Ahsan early recovery. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also condemned the attack.

The French embassy, US ambassador David Hale, British High Commissioner Thomas Drew and UN coordinator Neil Buhne were also among those tweeting their support for Ahsan’s recovery.

Suspicions about suspect’s claim

Though Ahsan Iqbal earlier in the day also held a meeting with a Christian group, a police source said, “We are not sure whether it [attack] has got anything to do with the [stated] motive... We will know only after investigation of the attacker.”

Describing the assault an “assassination attempt”, CM Shehbaz Sharif said, “[He] just spoke to him [Ahsan] and he is in high spirits.” He tweeted that he was personally overseeing the investigation and vowed to bring “those who indulged in this heinous act” to justice.

“PML-N will not be browbeaten into submission,” said Shehbaz, dropping a hint that the shooting may be a work of the anti-PML-N forces whom his brother and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has lately been dubbing as ‘aliens’.

The party, now being headed by Shehbaz, has been struggling to find its footing since Nawaz was ousted by the Supreme Court over graft allegations last summer. He, along with his children, is now facing corruption cases in accountability court, and believes that military establishment is behind all their troubles.

Besides him, one of his close aides and former foreign minister Khawaja Asif too has been banned from politics for life – ahead of the polls that will pit the PML-N against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, being led by former cricket star Imran Khan.

Though the besieged leader would never name the army explicitly, he and his supporters believe they are victims of a conspiracy to reduce their power.

PML-N lawmaker Maiza Hameed told Geo News that the shooting was an attempt to “weaken democracy” ahead of the upcoming elections.

Nawaz Sharif’s own political speeches show that he believes his party is being squeezed from all sides to prevent it from winning the next elections or, at least, from securing a heavy mandate.

Despite the setbacks, the PML-N has won a string of recent by-elections, proving it will likely remain a force to reckon with in the vote.

TLYR

The TLYR, which claims to be a defender of the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW), announced its disassociation from the attacker and strongly condemned the shooting at the minister.

Rising from ashes of Mumtaz Qadri – who was hanged for assassinating ex-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer – Tehreek-e-Labaik has emerged as a strong pressure group and it has caused quite a stir in the national politics during last few years under the leadership of its firebrand leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

Last year Rizvi spearheaded a rally on the issue of changes in an electoral declaration about the finality of the prophethood. The TLYR, along with some other religious groups, then staged a weeks-long sit-in on a key bridge connecting the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, bringing miseries to the commuters.

The sit-in ended after an agreement brokered by the military which made the government surrender to the demands of the agitators. The apparent grossness and illegality of the agreement made the Supreme Court to take a suo moto notice on the issue.